Kiss-and-tell in Saudi Arabia

One man who knows all about the perils of going public is Mazen Abdel Gawad, a thirty-something divorced father of four in Jeddah. Sitting cross-legged on his neatly-made double bed, Abdel Gawad gave us a guided tour of his favourite room in the house. “Nearly all my life is in this room,” he explained. “Everything you can imagine happens here.” For those of limited imagination, Abdel Gawad gave a demonstration. He picked up a slim volume from his bedside table, 101 Questions about Sex. “How to get an erection, how to excite a woman, I learned a lot from this book.” Next, his paraphernalia: condoms, oils and toys—including two teddy bears locked in a 69. “Sex, you cannot get fed up with it. And when you carry on doing it in one place, and you suddenly change the place, you find it more beautiful…And if you ask me where, I wish I could do it in the plane,” he smiled.

When I say “us”,  I mean me and thousands of other viewers of primetime Arab TV in the summer of 2009. This was no private conversation; Abdel Gawad was talking about his sex life on an episode of Ahmar b’il Khatt Il Aareed .The programme’s title, which translates to Bold Red Type, is a play on the Arabic phrase, il khatt il ahmar or “the red line”, a term used to describe sensitive subjects, off-limits for discussion. Taboo-busting (and audience-attracting) was exactly what the producers had in mind when this talk show launched in 2008 on LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, whose satellite channel is available across the Arab region.

The five-minute video segment from Saudi Arabia welcomed viewers to the home-cum-pleasure-palace of Abdel Gawad. In his tidy, red-themed bedroom (“Red colour is a little sexy,” he observed, “I die for the woman who is wearing something red”), he explained the importance of sex in his life, starting at age 14 when he lost his virginity to an older neighbour. When three male friends dropped by, Abdel Gawad expanded on his views: “I like foreplay personally. I know men who don’t do that and they go for the woman like an animal and they don’t do foreplay. They don’t kiss, they don’t play and that’s a problem for them.” Then our hero popped into his convertible, rolled down the top, and took to the streets of Jeddah.“When I drive, I am having my Bluetooth working. I get calls from girls. They ask, are you the owner of the small red car. And they ask is it for sale or not for sale, and we start a conversation. Then we carry it to the end,” he explained, before stopping at a shopping mall to try his luck.

By Western standards, the video segment was almost laughably tame—sex toys pixillated out; the shy, almost girlish, talk among the men and not a single woman in sight. From a female perspective, there was an almost endearing quality to the neatly-groomed Abdel Gawad—condom -conscious, keen on foreplay and particular about his partners’ pleasure—unlike the sexually-selfish partners I’ve heard plenty of women across the region bemoan.

Saudi Arabian viewers, however, saw things a little differently. Within hours, Jeddah authorities were flooded with hundreds of complaints against Abdel Gawad for “corrupting the land and spreading sin,”, a serious crime under Saudi Arabian law, with penalties up to execution. His critics didn’t stop there though, campaigning in newspapers and lobbying the Minister of Culture for the full force of the law to be applied to the Abdel Gawad, who ended up in jail along with two of his hapless friends from the video. Saudi media had little sympathy for the country’s now infamous son. At best, he was considered naïve to have put himself in this situation; at worst, he was guilty of publicly admitting fornication and was to serve as an example to all who dare to follow his path.

The campaign had an interesting commercial twist as well.  To begin with, Abdel Gawad was an employee of Saudi airlines, and the disclosure of his sex-in-flight-fantasy led to prompt dismissal. Prospects of joining the mile-high-club while on the job were always going to be remote for Abdel Gawad, who was desk-bound at the airline’s office at Jeddah airport; nonetheless, outraged citizens considered  him a menace to their womenfolk and pressured the airline to root him out. In a pincer move, a group of Saudi businessmen also organised a boycott of advertising on LBC Satellite, just before the all-important Ramadan viewing season, when ad revenues double in the richest parts of the region as millions of viewers settle in each night for post-fast entertainment. Things went from bad to worse for the channel, as authorities closed down their offices in Jeddah and Riyadh, although local employees protested they had nothing to do with a show that was produced thousands of kilometres away in Beirut. One female producer was sentenced to a half a year in jail and 60 lashes, though later pardoned by the King before the first crack of the whip.

No such relief for Abdel Gawad, however, who was left to cool his ardour in jail. Legal experts helpfully opined that a crime of this magnitude could easily merit death by stoning, or at least 20 years in prison and a couple thousand lashes. No wonder he was said to be praying and crying day and night, when not consulting with his lawyer on suing LBC for damages. Abdel Gawad went on the offensive, saying that host had misrepresented the show as a programme on conjugal relations “for the benefit of the youth who contemplate marriage”, and that its producers supplied all the on-screen paraphernalia themselves. “By God, I was tricked,” he said, claiming that LBC also promised to conceal  his identity on camera. In its defence, LBC claimed that Abdel Gawad actually volunteered to participate in the show and knew the content all along.

In the end, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a thousand lashes, rehabilitation with psychiatrist and social worker, a five year travel ban and his tools of seduction—convertible and mobile—confiscated; in the end, though, he too got off with a reduced sentence, and escaped the lash.